The terms "architectural" and "design" hardly seem like fighting words, but when remodelers use them to describe their services, some architects come out swinging.

In Virginia and several other states, architects are filing complaints against remodelers who describe their plan design services in such terms.

The architects claim such usage misleads the public into believing they are hiring a licensed architect.

Remodelers, however, say they are accurately describing what they can do for a customer, while going to great lengths to avoid any reference to the word "architect."

With more remodelers positioning themselves to provide design services as well as perform the construction work, the problem is not likely to go away any time soon, said Bryan Patchan, executive director of the National Association of Home Builders' remodelers council.

Should the architects prevail, Patchan warned, remodeling customers may never learn about the design-build remodeler.

That option, he added, can prove less expensive than going to an architect for remodeling plans.

In Virginia, the fight now before Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Thomas Fortkort revolves around the use of "architecture" and other variations of the word.

In 1988, the Virginia Department of Commerce, which oversees the State Board for Architects, ordered the McLean remodeling firm of Greenwald Cassell Associates to refrain from using the term "professional architectural design" services in an advertisement.

Rather than agree to the cease and desist order, the owners of the remodeling firm, Roger and Nancy Greenwald, decided to ask a court to intercede.

"Nobody owns the word architecture," Roger Greenwald said.

Great Falls architect Robert Wilson Mobley, who initiated the complaint against the Greenwalds in 1988, feels differently.

Derivatives like architecture and architectural, he said, implies that the person possesses the same structural and engineering knowledge that takes eight years of study and apprenticeship for an architect to acquire.

"The foremost responsibility we have as architects is to protect the life and safety of the public," Mobley said. "When somebody implies that they are an architect, the public automatically assumes that they are getting that protection."

The state of Virginia made a similar case when it defended itself against the Greenwalds's complaint in June; no ruling has been issued on the matter.

Virginia, the state's attorneys argued, has an interest in protecting the "unwary public from those who may not be competent in terms of knowledge, skills or ethics."

Nancy Somerville, senior director of state and local government affairs for the American Institute of Architects, said that Virginia's position is understandable.

"Usually when a state controls an occupational title {like architect}, the derivations are controlled in order to prevent the public from being misled," she said.

Although there is a difference between "the practice of architecture" and "providing architectural services," Somerville said, that distinction is probably lost on the general public.

To eliminate any confusion, she said, the states give those licensed to practice architecture full use of the term architect and its variants.

Many non-architects elect to avoid problems by calling themselves building designers rather than architectural designers, Somerville added.

Bill G. Hefner, president of the American Institute of Building Design in Sacramento, Calif., said he believes that architects and their defenders are failing to distinguish between the aesthetics of design, which do not require an architectural degree to learn, and the structural component that architectural students spend so much time mastering.

Most custom residential remodeling jobs do not involve the kinds of structural changes that could put a home in danger of collapsing, said Hefner, whose organization represents building designers who are not licensed as architects.

The National Association of Home Builders's Patchan agreed, noting that today's building codes are "so detailed and comprehensive that they don't leave much latitude" for a designer to make a structural mistake.

The safety argument, also leaves the Greenwalds' attorney, Robert T. Adams, unimpressed.

In 1982, he said, the Virginia legislature exempted many additions, remodeling and interior design jobs, as well as single-family homes of up to three stories, from the law that otherwise requires licensed architects to design buildings.

The General Assembly "concluded that people that were not architects could do {residential design work} well and could do it safely," he said.

The safety argument, remodelers further claim, is a red herring to draw attention away from the costs architects charge for their work.

Various estimates, from both the architect and remodeler communities, put the cost of an architect-produced plan at 5 percent to 12 percent of the job.

Design-build remodelers charge a flat fee closer to 5 percent of the job cost, Patchan said.

Generally speaking, Adams said, "the reason people will go to design-build firms rather than to licensed architectural firms is that they can get the product cheaper."

The AIA's Somerville, disputed such a claim as "too much of a generalization."

Besides Virginia, the battle of the words has also been waged in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Indiana and Hawaii, according to Mary DiCrescenzo, an NAHB lawyer tracking the issue.

Given the success state agencies have enjoyed in stopping other remodelers from advertising their services, Adams said he believes the Virginia case involving his clients could prove important to the rest of the country.

It could provide a precedent, he said, from which others can "perhaps gain some comfort and courage to pursue whatever may be their rights under their particular state's law."

The war of the words in New Jersey, however, is being fought over "design" and "designer."

New Jersey's law, which DiCrescenzo characterizes as "very harsh," makes it illegal for a nonlicensed architect to draw up building plans unless they are for a family home built by the designer.

Bonnie Biebel Johnson, president of BBJ, a design-build remodeling firm in Martinsville, N.J., faces a $2,500 first-offense fine for using the words "design" or "designer" in her firm's advertising because she has not complied with a January warning from the state's Board of Architects.

Before contracting to do construction work for a customer, Johnson said she and her employees often sketch out a design to determine whether the idea is feasible and the cost acceptable.

An architect will subsequently approve any plans involving structural changes, Johnson said.

"I can't imagine how we would ever sell anything without being able to do that. To bring an architect with you on your first visit to try and sell a job is pretty ridiculous," she said.

Ollie Hartsfield, a spokeswoman for the state's Division of Consumer Affairs, said that design services of the scope described by Johnson represent a "shady area" in the law.

Nonetheless, she said, the law does protect homeowners from deception.

If a remodeler "advertises in such a way as to make a homeowner think that for this price I am going to get signed-off plans {from an architect} and I am going to get the plans built, then that is one of the reasons behind reserving these titles," she said.

NAHB has noticed an increase in the number of reports from its remodeler members complaining of similar problems.

DiCrescenzo said she attributes the rise to "tough times" that have heightened the competition for design jobs in certain markets.

"It is a turf battle," she said. "Depending on how strong of architectural lobby you have and how strong the remodeler or builder lobby is, then there could be some nice fights going on."